Business-sanctioned MOOCs

empty_classroomI’ve been following MOOCs closely since Sebastian’s first course on building a search engine, and the New York Times coverage of that first mainstream MOOC back in March of 2012 (although it seems much, much longer ago than that). I even enrolled in a MOOC, and stuck with it long enough to understand the framework and learning environment. Unfortunately, the presentation of the material was not engaging enough to hold my interest. Today, there are hundreds of MOOCs offered by Udacity, Coursera, EdX and others. While MOOCs provide free education from big name institutions, questions remain about the quality of the education they provide, and the perceived value of successfully completing a MOOC by those that review resumes and credentials. Here in academe we are wondering what threat MOOCs present to traditional educational institutions; what is the value of a college degree in this new educational landscape?

The recent Wall Street Journal article, “Job Market Embraces Massive Online Courses,” is sure to cause more concern for college administrators across the country. As I explained in my CourseCast, Google, AT&T,¬†UPS, Procter & Gamble Co. Wal-Mart and other corporations, are beginning to design series of MOOCs that address the specific needs of their organizations. In this manner, these businesses are assured that students who successfully complete these sequences of courses and pass the exams have the desired skills. These aren’t necessarily low-level skills. They include¬†subjects like computer science and supply-chain management.

As these new corporate-sponsored MOOCs expand to cover a wide variety of corporate jobs they may pose a threat to certain vocational schools and community colleges that focus on training high-school graduates, and returning students for specific vocations. But, how might they impact Universities?

Universities offer benefits and opportunities that MOOCs will find difficult to duplicate online:

  1. The emphasis on liberal studies in universities, and the ability to mix with a wide variety of students and faculty, broadens the mind and open doors to opportunities that are not found through narrow vocational paths.
  2. The residential aspect of university life provides a transition for traditional 18 – 21 year-old students from a dependent life to an independent life in a somewhat sheltered environment. As a University teacher, I often find myself assisting students with this difficult transition.
  3. Regular face-to-face contact with classmates and teachers provide opportunities to build deeper relationships and connections than is easily achievable in online environments.
  4. Universities provide opportunities for students to “think outside the box,” and achieve distinction in their field through independent supervised study and research, providing the personal touch that is difficult to deliver in a MOOC, and freedom and independence that is counter to the spirit of cookie cutter MOOCs.

Despite these comparitive shortcomings, MOOCs offer tremendous opportunities for everyone by providing free access to courses on valuable topics from top name schools. They are especially valuable to students who are unable to attend traditional college due to time or financial constraints. It is likely that over time, MOOCs will overcome many of these shortcomings by leveraging new technologies to provide a more personal online learning environment for students.

There is a lot that traditional schools should learn from MOOCs and the recent support MOOCs are receiving from corporations. It is important that Universities align with corporations to confirm that we are properly preparing students for all types of careers and opportunities. Not only should students be equipped with the skills to fill available jobs, but they should also have rich communication skills (written and spoken, online and off), problem-solving skills, computer skills, and the ability to innovate in their field.

I don’t see MOOCs presenting Universities with a choice between online education or classroom education. Both environments provide valuable opportunities. Universities should harness online environments and frameworks to deliver education outside the classroom walls so that students are engaged with their coursework and studies throughout their days and nights as they are engaged with their social media. Classroom time should be spent taking advantage of human face-time by engaging in discussions, problem-solving, and group work in the classroom or in the field. Over time, the most successful institutions will be the ones that provide the best value to students utilizing the online and onground classroom in the most engaging and productive ways.